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Framing arguments: how words shape point of view

Fact: we change our decisions based language that writers use.

In a famous 1981 experiment by Kahneman and Tversky, two versions of the exact same dilemma were presented to doctors, one framing the problem as a “gain” and one as a “loss.” Faced with the same problem in different wording, doctors overwhelmingly switched their decision.

The situation: A new strain of flu is expected to kill 600 people. Two programs to combat the disease have been proposed.

Frame 1: If program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved. Which of the two programs would you favor? [80% of doctors went went program A]

Frame 2: If program A is adopted, 400 people will die. If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that nobody will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die. Which of the two programs would you favor? [80% doctors went with program B!!]

Try this on your friends. Ask them either Frame 1 or Frame 2 and see if they pick the typical choice.

What does this mean?

George Lakoff, professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, points out that this framing language happens all the time (listen to an NPR article here). A few examples:

Topic Frame 1 Frame 2
Abortion You’re killing a child (pro-life)/ partial-birth abortion You’re ending a pregnancy (pro-choice)/ late-term abortion
Cutting Taxes We’re giving “tax relief” to the burdened citizens (death tax) We’re losing the “membership fees” that maintain our national infrastructure (estate tax)
Opposing Gay Marriage We’re preserving tradition that defines marriage as between a man and woman We’re restricting a human right from consenting adults simply because of sexual orientation
Environmental Laws We’re protecting health We’re stifling free enterprise
Darfur Humanitarian aid for a genocide Military intervention in civil war
Smoking Ban on Campus Promoting overall health Restricting individual freedom
Homicide Rates among Blacks Correcting socioeconomic inequity Intervening in violence-prone communities
Iraq Conflict Bush: “Global war on terror” Obama: “Overseas contingency operation”
Video Games A waste of massive time on pointless entertainment A major investment of time on complex learning tasks


All of the statements are true, but each puts the topic in starkly different light.

Read how whole stories can be frames

Is Framing Deceitful? Is it Propaganda?

Lakoff says that framing is different from propaganda in that the first states a truth while the latter states an untruth or something that cannot be proved:

Issue: Our country’s policy toward a foreign dictatorship called Oceania

Frame 1: Greater economic bonds with Oceania will give us more influence in controlling the leader. Therefore we should trade with Oceania.

Frame 2: Oceania’s leader restricts his citizens’ human rights. Therefore we should not trade with Oceania.

Propaganda 1: Oceania’s leader cares deeply about his people. That’s why he controls them. Therefore we should give him lots of money.

Propaganda 2: Oceania is an evil empire run by a monster. Therefore we should destroy Oceania.

How to apply it to writing

Depending on what your position is, you want to select a frame that emphasizes your thinking. If a pro-choice advocate writes a paper trying to argue where life really begins, and that a fetus is not living, they can support that argument, but it’s an argument within the frame that is not in line with his/her reasoning. Same thing for a liberal who argues that we should’t provide “tax relief” to the wealthy because they’re already doing well.

Instead, that person should say that the nation requires membership fees to provide the infrastructure that we all use, and that since the wealthy use and have access to more of the national infrastructure, they should pay higher membership fees, just as a company offers more benefits for higher memberships.

Don’t give the other team home-field advantage.